Denali National Park, AlaskaPosted: September 7, 2011
If you asked me to sum up our backpacking trip to Denali in three words I would say: beauty, rain, and wildlife. But Denali is a hard place to describe. It makes you feel small. It is a place were the wild is still wild, and we are just momentary visitors. Perhaps this is because it is so big, everything in Alaska is big. The park contains 6 million acres, that is larger than Massachusetts. There is only one unpaved road into the park, and it is only open to private vehicles up to mile 15. The road stretches 92 miles. Beyond mile 15, the only way to go down the road is by the park bus system. School buses take loads of people from the Wilderness Access Center at the gate to various places within the park depending on how long you are willing to sit on a bus.
To reach the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66, it takes four hours one-way. The bus ride is bumpy, a little scary when you cross over Polychrome Mountain with hairpin turns and steep drop offs, and totally amazing. As backpackers we had camper bus passes that allowed us to get on and off the buses at any place in the park. We took full advantage of that opportunity and rode out to Eielson three times. From the bus we saw the most wildlife: bears (black and grizzly), moose, caribou, lynx, doll sheep, and all kinds of birds. One bus driver said that on the bus he wanted to see wildlife right under his window but in the backcountry he wanted them to be far away, we agreed! From the bus it was so neat to see bear feeding on blueberries up on a hill, and caribou walking on thin ridges in a straight single file line like school children. One of my favorite, and most comforting, bear sightings came when we saw a grizzly bear out in an open field eating. Then we noticed hikers in the near distance. The bear noticed them at the same moment and took off in the opposite direction (they can run up to 40mph). He was running away from the hikers looking over his shoulder to make sure they didn’t follow him. Lucas and I were glad to see that! Bear safety is very important in Denali and something that we took very seriously. Fortunately for us, because the park emphasizes this so much, bears are not habituated to humans, meaning they do not associate people with food. This makes things safer for us and the bears.
When we arrived at the park we went to the Backcountry Information Center where we received a safety talk, watched a 30 minute video on avoiding and reacting to animal encounters, picked up a second bear proof food container, and made our plans for the 6 nights we would spend in the park. It was raining, a consent companion during our trip, and we made arrangements to spend our first night at a rustic campground an hour inside the park, the next two nights in unit 8, the following two nights in unit 31, and our last night in another unit near the park entrance, but we ended up camping at the visitor center Riley Creek Campground (luxury camping after four nights in the backcountry; they have flush toilets and running water!). For backcountry camping, the park is divided into 87 units. Meaning they give you a section of land within the park to camp. Denali has very few trails and none in the backcountry. There are no established campgrounds in the backcountry either. So you are free to hike and camp any place within your unit each day. You use topographical maps and GPS to travel. It is a totally different kind of hiking and camping experience, and all new for us. The best part was the freedom and the solitude. In the backcountry we never saw another person. It was just the two of us. Each day we would pick a route and try to follow it towards the next place we wanted to be. It was the closest I think I will ever come to understanding how hard it must have been to be a pioneer.
We picked, with the help of a ranger, two great units. Unit 8 and 31 are right across from each other. Unit 8 encompasses the Polychrome Glaciers, and unit 31 has the Polychrome Mountains. To hike into both, we started on two different river drainages. In the park these are as close to a trail as you will get. Because of the huge influx of water from glaciers and mountain streams, rivers have wide gravel bars making them both flat and open, two good things when hiking in the backcountry. Visibility is important to avoid surprising animals, and it helps you see where you want to go. My favorite parts of unit 8 were seeing two moose while hiking and following a stream up a mountain to its source. It was the first time I had seen moose so close in the wild. It was just the moose and us. They were very uninterested, but we gave them plenty of space anyways. We camped at the base of two mountains near a large river. A smaller, clear, stream fed into the river just southwest of us, so we decided to follow it to the source. It took us through a rocky valley and up a mountain. From the top we could see the area we had hiked through that day, the park road, and into unit 31, where we would be going the next day. It was like looking at a poster, too pretty to be real. My favorite parts of unit 31 were our camp (on a skinny ridge), hiking up into the mountains with beautiful views of the Alaskan range, hearing wolves hunting at night, and getting dive bombed by a golden eagle during a water break. The valley of this unit was very wet, so we camped up, with views back into 8 and out over the Alaskan range. I wish we could have a summer home on that ridge! Hiking the ridges here was like a game of up and down the mountain. We would climb up to the top of one ridge, with beautiful views, only to find there was another one out in front of us, and we just had to see what views it might offer. That day we had sun, and our clearest views out over the park. At night we could hear the wolves up the valley hunting. The long cries echoing around us. The golden eagle was like batman. We were sitting on a ridge and it popped up behind us, tucked its wings in and swooped in, only to spread them and glide out. A park ranger we talked with said very few people get to see golden eagles, a lucky spot.
But I can’t talk about Denali without talking about rain. I have never been so wet for so long. We became experts at setting up and taking down as quickly as possible and cooking in between or during rain. It made you appreciate every moment of sun, and I think it made us realize we could handle just about anything on the trail. Being in the backcountry in Denali reminds you how big our world is. It is humbling, exhilarating, and, although I was certainly ready for a shower by the time we got back to Anchorage, something I would do again without a second thought.
*Lucas, my husband, took most (if not all) of the pictures!